Ancient Jewish Theology and Law

Jonathan Klawans on the divergence of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes


According to scholar Jonathan Klawans, ancient Jews—including the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes—cared as much about matters of Jewish theology as about laws and practices.

In his Biblical Views column “Theology Versus Law in Ancient Judaism” in the January/February 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Boston University professor of religion Jonathan Klawans recounts a conversation had among a group of mostly Jewish married couples:

One of the non-Jewish spouses in the group said something to the effect that he had considered converting to Judaism but decided he could not. Someone asked, “Why not?” To which he replied, “Oh, I can’t convert to Judaism. I don’t believe in God.” Someone else present immediately slammed his hand on the table in objection, “And what does that have to do with it?”

For Klawans, this story is representative of a common belief that in Judaism, it’s more about what one does than what one believes. In Klawans’s interpretation, what Jews do is informed by Jewish laws and practices, and what they believe is informed by Jewish theology. This view—to which many modern Jewish intellectuals subscribe—can be attributed to the great 18th-century German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who considered Judaism a religion of revealed law. Drawing from Mendelssohn, some scholars today believe, according to Klawans, that Second Temple period Jews—including the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes—were primarily concerned with defining laws and practices and less so on developing fixed beliefs in Jewish theology.

That different Jewish sects disagreed over laws and practices is well attested. Manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls suggest that the ancient Jews argued over matters concerning the calendar, diet, purity rules and sacrificial procedures. In Rabbinic literature, the Pharisees and especially the Sadducees are said to have been greatly concerned with legal matters.

Interested in the history and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In this free eBook, learn what the Dead Sea Scrolls are and why are they important. Find out what they tell us about the Bible, Christianity and Judaism when you download our free Dead Sea Scrolls eBook.

Just as much scholarly attention should be paid to divergences in ancient Jewish theology as to those in ancient Jewish law, Klawans says. For instance, disagreements between the Pharisees and Sadducees over the afterlife are attested in Rabbinic literature and the New Testament and by Josephus. The Wisdom of Ben Sira (also known as the book of Ecclesiasticus) and the Community Rule scroll from Qumran—associated by some scholars with a community of Essenes—describe different ideas of fate and free will.

What are the implications of shining a greater light on ancient Jewish theological debates? Learn what Jonathan Klawans concludes by reading his full Biblical Views column “Theology Versus Law in Ancient Judaism” in the January/February 2015 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read the Biblical Views column “Theology Versus Law in Ancient Judaism” by Jonathan Klawans in the January/February 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

Many assume that Jesus’ Last Supper was a Seder, the ritual Passover meal. Examine evidence from the synoptic Gospels with scholar Jonathan Klawans >>


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Schisms in Jewish History
Lawrence H. Schiffman’s four-part series on unity and disunity throughout Jewish history.

Biblical Pharisees and Jewish Halakhah
Good guys with bad press, says scholar Roland Deines.

Josephus on the Essenes

Making Sense of Kosher Laws


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  • Saul says

    Why use the term ancient Jews. Do we write Ancient Christians or Ancient Buddhists? You are referring to Jews who lived at a specific period of history. Ancient Jews does not provide a time line. Could it be that you use Ancient Jews because you are not acquainted with the Jewish historical time line

  • Elhouma says

    I tried to post yesterday berofe going out of town but had computer trouble. I’m really glad I got to read all of your comments berofe posting because you all have reminded me of something that happened when I was a teenager.I’ll never forget being at church one Sunday morning and one of our older deacons walked forward at the end of the service (during the altar call ) and talked for a long time with the pastor while the congregation was singing a hymn. After we finished singing, the pastor had us all sit down, and then he said, Mr. Henry has something to say to all of us. We sat down thinking that this wonderful, kind, old deacon (in his 70s at the time) was going to share some words of wisdom with us. After all, he’d taught Sunday School for years, had served as a deacon, had given to the church, had visited people in the hospital he was one of our pillars. Well, with tears streaming down his face, he shared that he had realized that he had never truly accepted Christ as his personal Savior and Lord, and he’d come forward that morning to do that! He’d been doing all the right things all these years, all the things people would have expected him to do, and he knew what the Bible said backwards and forwards. But, he somehow had missed the boat.That’s what the Pharisees did they were missing the boat. They had the book sense, but they didn’t apply their knowledge in a way that made them use their faith. I think the Pharisees, like Mr, Henry, were trying to work their way into the Kingdom of God, and it just doesn’t work that way because NONE of us can EVER be perfect, which is what is required the sinless life is required for that, and that only comes through Christ’s life, death and unbelievable, amazing grace.

  • Kurt says

    The Resurrection of Jesus—Its Meaning for Us
    NOT many days after Jesus died, the apostle Peter faced a formidable and hostile group of men. They were powerful Jewish religious leaders—the very ones who had orchestrated Jesus’ death. The men demanded an explanation. Peter had healed a man who had been lame from birth, and they wanted to know by what power or in whose name Peter had done this. The apostle courageously answered: “In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you executed on a stake but whom God raised up from the dead, by means of him this man stands here healthy in front of you.”—Acts 4:5-10.
    Why We Must Be Holy
    We Must Be Holy in All Our Conduct
    “The People Whose God Is Jehovah”
    “Now You Are God’s People”

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